Algeria: Witness from the front line of a police force bent on brutality
Robert Fisk, The Independent, 30.10.1997
Dalilah is the first Algerian policewoman to escape from her country and tell of the torture and executions she witnessed at the hands of Algeria’s intelligence services. In a flat in a London suburb, she told how she was forced to sign fake death certificates for prisoners whom she saw dying under torture.
Dalilah is used to blood. When she describes the prisoners, stripped half-naked and tied to ladders in the garage of the Cavignac police station in central Algiers, she does so with a curious detachment.
Later, when I have spent more than an hour listening to her evidence of cruelty and death, she will turn to me with a terrifying admission. « I’m being treated by a psychologist because I have bad dreams, » she says. « My great passion now is to go to see horror movies – it’s the only thing that interests me. I want to see blood. »
It is an extraordinary remark to come from this attractive woman of 30 with her abundant dark black hair tied in a bunch, dandling the child of an Algerian woman friend on her knee. In your local police station, Dalilah would be a welcome member of the force. And so she was when she began serving at the Colonel Amirouche Street police station in 1985.
« I loved the job – I still love that job I originally had, » she says. « I was in the intelligence department, a police detective in the Special Branch and I’d wanted to be a policewoman to serve my people since I was 12 years old. »
Dalilah was trained for nine months at the Chateauneuf Higher Police School in Algiers – her father had been a police officer – and she enjoyed playing in police sports teams as well as her work as a detective.
Things started to go wrong for her during the October 1988 demonstrations for democracy and then they went wrong again – badly wrong – with the cancellation by the military-backed government of national elections that the Islamists were certain to win in 1991. Six policemen were assassinated in Algiers on 12 February 1992. Dalilah knew two of them, Elias and Mourad, both shot down in the casbah.
« I was moved to Cavignac police station near the post office and I hated what was happening there, what was happening to the police.
« They tortured people – I saw this happening. I saw innocent young people tortured like wild animals. Yes, I myself saw the torture sessions. What could I do?
« They executed people at 11 o’clock at night, people who had done nothing. They had been denounced by people who didn’t get along with them. People just said ‘He’s a terrorist’ and the man would be executed. »
Dalilah talks about torture like an automaton, her voice a monotone. She says she saw, over a period of months, at least 1,000 men tortured at the rate of 12 a day, the police interrogators starting at 10am and working in shifts until 11pm.
« They tied young people to a ladder with a rope. They were always shirtless, sometimes naked. They put a rag over their face. Then they forced salty water into them. There was a tap with a pipe that they stuck in the prisoner’s throat and they ran the water until the prisoners’ bellies had swelled right up. « When I remember it, I think how it hurt to see a human being like this – it’s better to murder men than see them tortured like that. »
Dalilah cries when she describes what she saw. « The torturers would say: ‘You must confess that you killed so-and-so’ and they made the prisoners sign a confession with their eyes blindfolded – they didn’t have the right to read what they were signing.
« There were prisoners who wept and said: ‘I’ve done nothing – I have the right to a doctor and a lawyer’. When they said that, they got a fist in the mouth. Those who died were under the water torture. Their bellies were too swollen with water. Sometimes while this happened, the torturers would put broomsticks up their anuses.
« Some of the prisoners had beards, some didn’t. They were all poor. The top policemen gave the order to torture – I think it was given over the phone. But they didn’t use the word torture – they used to call it nakdoulou eslah – ‘guest treatment’. There would be screaming and crying from the prisoners. They would shout: ‘In the name of God, I did nothing’ or « We’re all the same, we’re Muslims like you’. They screamed and cried a lot. »
Men broke and died under torture. « I saw two men who died like that on the ladder, » Dalilah says. « The two bodies hung there on the ladder. They were dead and the torturer said: ‘Take them to the hospital and say they died in a battle.’ They did the same thing with those who were executed at 11 at night – it was done after curfew when only the police and the gendarmerie could drive around.
« I had to fill out the death certificates so the bodies could be taken out of the hospitals. I had to sign that it was a body that had been found in the forest after it had decomposed – it was very hot then. »
Dalilah says that she tried to protest to a superior officer, whose name she gave as Hamid. « I said to him: ‘You mustn’t do these things because we are all Muslims – there should at least be evidence against these people before you kill them.’ He said to me: ‘My girl, you are not made for the police force – if you suspect someone, you must kill him. When you kill people, that’s how you get promoted’. »
The torture sessions were carried out in a garage level with the ground floor at the Cavignac police station.
« Any cop would hit the prisoners with the butt of his Kalash (rifle). Some of the prisoners went completely mad from being tortured. Everyone who was brought to the Cavignac was tortured – around 70 per cent of the cops there saw all this. They participated.
« Although the torture was the job of the judiciary police, the others joined in. The prisoners would be 20 to 30 to a cell and they would be brought one by one to the ladder, kicked in the ribs all the time. It was inhuman.
« In the cells, the prisoners got a piece of bread every two days. There was no medicine. Every prisoner, according to the law, has the right to a doctor. But they would be returned to their cells covered in blood. »
According to Dalilah, women prisoners were taken for torture to a special section of the Chateauneuf police station called the National Organisation for the Suppression of Criminality, where Algerian military security police prevented all but those with special passes from entering. « You had to be a high-ranking officer to get in there because of the way they treated women, » Dalilah says. « They killed there too, but I don’t know any more. »
Dalilah’s tragedy is a personal one. « I can’t sleep in the dark because I’m afraid, » she says. « It’s not my fault because my fiance was murdered during Ramadan in 1993. The men who did this to him were dressed as policemen – and they killed him because he was a policeman. They kill without reason. »
Who are ‘they’, I ask? And she replies: « That’s the big question.
« My friend Nacera was letting her flat to a policewoman called Hamida and she received a threat letter – apparently from armed ‘Islamists’ – saying: ‘If you protect the police, you’re dead.’ They gave her one month (to evict Hamida). Then on 12 July 1994, they shot them both in Nacera’s car in the Cite Garridi. »
But it was torture that destroyed Dalilah’s life – and which proved her undoing.
« There was a group of elderly people who were tortured, » she says. « I couldn’t stand to see it, especially one man of about 55 whose arm was rotting. He had gangrene and he smelled very bad. I couldn’t bear it and I went and bought him some penicillin and put it on his arm because I thought it would help.
« There were another six people in his cell who had been tortured – it smelled like death in there. But another policeman had seen me and I asked him not to say anything. You see, we didn’t have the right to talk to prisoners – only to hit them.
« But the policeman wrote a report to the commissioner who called me in and said my case would go to the national commissioner. He said: ‘Maybe you’ll go to prison for helping terrorists’. The man I helped was freed afterwards – which showed he was innocent. »
Armed ‘Islamists’ – four young men who turned up at her mother’s home in a Golf car – had meanwhile targeted Dalilah, demanding she hand over her police pistol within 15 days.
When Dalilah asked for police protection, she was told that « everyone is in the same situation ». She slept in police stations at night. Then she slipped from home one night and bribed her way onto a boat for Europe, on the run from both the Algerian security forces and the Islamist guerrillas.